No. 5: Dianna Houenou and Jeff Brown

Dianna Houenou and Jeff Brown

Following the launch of New Jersey’s recreational cannabis marketplace in April 2022, eight out-of-state entities have dominated the industry, opening and operating all 21 dispensaries currently licensed to sell. Moving into 2023, the Cannabis Regulatory Commission, which regulates the industry and oversees licensing, said it wants to see more local, small business owners participate in a market that is expected to be valued at more than $2 billion a year by 2026.

Leading the charge to make New Jersey’s adult-use market more equitable and sustainable is Brown, who previously headed the state’s medical cannabis program, and Houenou, who spent years pushing for the end of cannabis prohibition while with the ACLU-NJ.

In New Jersey, entrepreneurs face several challenges in entering the market, including high start-up costs and access to capital. They’re also up against more established, multistate operators with years of experience and more resources at their disposal. Houenou has said the five-member board “has from the beginning understood that if we want New Jersey’s cannabis market to reflect the diversity of its residents, and if we want to ensure that it is inclusive of groups that bear the scars of prohibition, then designated access to capital would be essential for some applicants.” She has pointed to the CRC’s priority application process, as well as new initiatives like the no-cost Cannabis Training Academy being launched by the New Jersey Business Action Center this year as “paving that path for them to be included.”

The CRC also partnered with the New Jersey Economic Development Authority on a recently announced pilot program that will provide grants of up to $250,000 to those who seek to establish themselves in the marketplace. In 2023, the CRC is continuing efforts to collect feedback that will help determine how the state invests social equity excise fees raised from recreational cannabis sales.

Based on input the CRC has received so far, as well as SEEF revenue projections, the state plans to invest in grants and low-interest loans for aspiring entrepreneurs in impact zones and economically disadvantaged areas. Additionally, the five-member board is working on a framework that would allow medical dispensaries and recreational-use retailers to operate consumption lounges.

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